After John’s disciples left, Jesus began talking about him to the crowds. “What kind of man did you go into the wilderness to see? Was he a weak reed, swayed by every breath of wind? Or were you expecting to see a man dressed in expensive clothes? No, people who wear beautiful clothes and live in luxury are found in palaces. Were you looking for a prophet? Yes, and he is more than a prophet. John is the man to whom the Scriptures refer when they say, ‘Look, I am sending My messenger ahead of You, and he will prepare Your way before You.’ I tell you, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John. Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of God is greater than he is!”
When they heard this, all the people—even the tax collectors—agreed that God’s way was right, for they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and experts in religious law rejected God’s plan for them, for they had refused John’s baptism.
Note this section takes place after John’s disciples leave. Why does Luke specifically tell us that? Because Jesus didn’t want to water down his rebuke to John with the praise He was about to heap on him with this following segment. He didn’t want the crowd to get the wrong impression. The earlier rebuke was for them too but He didn’t want them to go away with the wrong impression of John so he adds these comments. There are some interesting things going on here and in the passage that follows. There is much debate about the meaning of all this. Including the nature of the questions. “What did you go out to see?” Note they are all the same. The basic question is repeated three times but with a different focus each time. The repetition should get our attention as it did the crowd. The debate concerns whether the question is a “what” question or a “why” question or a rhetorical question but we will not dwell on that issue. There are more important things to take note of.
- “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?
- Really, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fancy clothes? See, those who wear fine clothes and live in luxury are in royal palaces.
- Really, what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and even more than a prophet!” ISV
These questions all relate to John the Baptist. It is clear they went out into the wilderness to see John. Israel flocked to see this new sensation. Was he a reed shaken by the wind? No way! He wasn’t tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine. He stood up firmly to the Pharisees and teachers of the law as he did also to Herod which cost him his life. No, bottom line he was no reed bent by the wind. But there is one sense in which he could have been seen to be a reed bent by the wind. That was in the fact that he was wavering in his interpretation of the Messiah he had been preaching. But I don’t think that is the meaning here. Jesus has deliberately held back the commendation of John until his disciples had gone. So that what was to follow would not water down the other message He had for John. It is hardly like that this second more negative sense is meant here. I think the inference is no way was John a weak character tossed to and fro by other’s reactions. The answer to this first question must be a resounding No.
Well was he a man of the royal courts? Accustomed to luxury and fine living? No, even if he had that privilege, he forsook it and chose instead to wear sack cloth and austere clothes to go with his message. He left behind luxurious living in the favour of a diet of wild honey and locusts. He wasn’t into the trappings of the royal courts. And even when he had the opportunity, he turned his back on it when he dared to rebuke the king publicly. Oh no, John was no royal lackie. Far from it. And why did he do all that? In order to make his message more impactful ! Was John a royal courtier used to living in luxury? No way!
Well did you go out to see a prophet then? Jesus Himself answers this question in the positive and adds – and even more than a prophet. Yes he was a prophet but even more important than a normal prophet. He was the one to usher in the age of the Messiah. He stood at the boundary of two eras and was announcing the new era. Not only that but unlike most prophets he got to see the One who he was announcing and anoint Him and seal Him in his role. No other prophets got to do that. This prophet was even told about in advance. Most often the prophet isn’t heralded in advance. He is clearly greater than, more than, the average prophet.
There was no human role more important than that of John. No human being who had gone before had a greater role than John’s. Some translations add no greater + prophet + than John, but that was not included in the original Greek. There are even some Greek manuscripts which have it added but they are unlikely to be original. The “prophet” was added to explain that the reference is to his role not his personhood. His role was the greatest and culmination of the ages. Yet even the least important person in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John. How is that possible? Because John is part of the old order. The kingdom of God and those who are part of it are the new order. The new by far outstrips the old.
There is another sense that is possible in this context. John clearly understood the kingdom to be for the here and now and that was the reason he was confused over “this Messiah”. To John the kingdom was apocalyptic, material and political it seems. But to Jesus it was present now, spiritual and eternal. Anyone who realized that was indeed greater than John. In kingdom terms if you understand that, you are greater than John. John still hadn’t got it. Have you? As I have said before, this kingdom brings division. The division is clearly stated here in these verses. If you don’t realize this key to understanding the kingdom of God you position yourself to missing the point and missing out. As the text tells us, the people had heard this and accept it. They had humbled themselves and gone off to the wilderness to be baptized in repentance in order to receive it. The pharisees and the teachers of the law rejected God’s plan for themselves because they refused to accept the baptism of repentance. They refused to confess and change their ways.
I prefer the “agreed that God’s way was right” of the NLT to “acknowledge the justice of God” of many other versions. The issue relates to righteousness. How does this “righteousness” come about? It is a big issue and this construction here is a strange one – translated “justified God” in many other translations. We don’t justify God; He justifies us and it is this which is right and proper. We are sinners and desperately in need in God’s intervention. We can’t justify ourselves, only a righteous judge can justify us. That is the reason Jesus came. Look back at all the passages we dealt with when we did Romans. Especially the section relate to Romans 3:21-26 (Gems 150 – 158)
That’s enough for now, this Gems has become a little “heavy”. Because we are dealing with weighty issues. The Gems I have referred to above focus on the verses crucial to our understanding of all this. Romans 3:21-26 is a section referred to by many as “the Gospel in a nutshell“. We need to understand it clearly and understand why it is God’s answer to what went before it in Romans 3. It’s the key to understanding God’s way of salvation – and there is only one way. Oh yes I know that sounds exclusive and puts many off. But it is true. It is God’s truth and it is not wise to tamper with God’s truth. Truth is either truth or it is not. Although we use the term “half truth”, there is no such thing. These are crucial verses and a foundational concept that must be understood to understand many other parts of your Bible.
Enough for now. We meet another difficult series of verses tomorrow in terms of working out what they mean. Hang on to your hat.
A Pharisee is hard on others + easy on himself. A spiritual man is easy on others + hard on himself!Rick Godwin
You won’t be happy if you get your way if your way isn’t God’s way.Joyce Meyer
Repentance is the hammer which shatters the barrier that protects God’s Word from the uncommitted.Robb Thompson
In repentance we must do 3 things in relation to sin:
- See it
- Own it
- Turn from it
What you did yesterday is of far less concern to God than where your heart is today.Andy Stanley
The greatest of faults, I should say, is to be conscious of none.Thomas Carlyle